Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas

Last Christmas, I wrote a long column in which I objected most strenuously to the whole season. I consider it my best and most important blog post to date, and I made several reasoned arguments against the Christmas season, the foremost of which is that it sucks and I hate it. At the mall this week, however, I was dismayed to discover that my objections have gone entirely unheeded. Unaccountably, Christmas has returned. Come on, people! Is no one reading this thing?

If this blog has railed against one thing from the outset it has been against the hypocrisy of compulsory sentiment, and nothing so exemplifies this condition as a visit to the shopping mall or supermarket this time of year. The same dozen songs, endlessly repeated (however often they are re-recorded - I see that Bob Dylan has an album of Christmas standards out); the same message (be merry, or else); the same visage of the Merry Leader (Santa, not Jesus) and the incessant reminder that he is watching you and knows when you are sleeping and when you are awake. There's an Orwellian thought for you. I say again that in the seven weeks separating Halloween from Christmas we get a small taste of what it’s like to live in North Korea. Merry! Merry! Merry! Happy! Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy! Joy! Merry Leader is Watching You And Expects You to Conform.

And, please, don't get me started again about the clich├ęd holiday specials ("Next week, on a very special episode of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons learn the true meaning of Christmas" etc.) and the vapid holiday films with trailer tag lines like, "This Christmas, the only things some families can stand more than being together, is being apart."

Come on now, Broad, you middle-aged grump. It's not all bad, is it? Well, I admit that I don't mind some Christmas music. Emile-Claire Barlow does a thumpingly great version of "Little Jack Frost" (if you have iTunes, download it now – you won't regret the 99 cents) and, of course, there's Dean Martin's effortless take on "Baby, It's Cold Outside." But these are songs about winter rather than Christmas per se. In my view, there's only one authentically good modern Christmas song: Fairytale of New York, by the seminal Irish band the Pogues and the late Kirsty MacColl. It’s about a drunk and a druggie and the sentiments of genuine affection (and contempt - she calls him a "scumbag" and a "maggot", he calls her an "old slut on junk") that they share at Christmastime. Brings a tear to these jaded eyes of mine.

I find myself in complete accord with my Christian friends who regard the season as too commercial. There's nothing new about this complaint – C.S. Lewis made it half a century ago and he wasn't the first. Indeed there is something cold and crass about the idea that we will express our affection for family and friends once per year through the mandatory purchase of commodities that are in most cases both unwanted and unneeded. In many families it's reached the point where people simply tell each other what to buy for them, which raises an obvious objection about cutting out the middle-man. I know, of course, that for many parents Christmas is a time of genuine joy — many children love it — but let us not forget, too, that for many parents of modest or little economic wherewithal Christmas is a time of genuine anxiety. Young children are consumer aware but not, generally, comprehending of their parents' economic circumstances. And let's not forget that some parents, too, are positively insane this time of year. Remember the Cabbage Patch Doll riots?

Judging the volume of e-mails I received (about a dozen), my blog last year was my most widely read ever. After it was published I was approached by a couple of activist-minded students who had seen it and who were preparing to petition my workplace over its overt displays of Christian Christmas symbols. This, they felt, created a "hostile" atmosphere for non-Christian students, faculty, and staff. Would I join them? My reply was "certainly not." Apart from the obvious objection that it's rather silly of anyone to voluntarily work at or to attend a Catholic institution and then act surprised to discover Christian symbols there, I explained to them that my affinity for the Grinch goes only so far. Like him, I find the season loud and crass. But we have an emphatic parting of ways over the fact that he believes that it's his right to stop other people from celebrating it, too.

The fact that the students ­— and they are by no means alone in this — could not differentiate between these two worlds-apart positions, is indicative of how badly our educational system often handles such things. Out of mistaken notions of "respect" for differing worldviews, many schools have decided that it's best if people don't express their differing worldviews at all. But respect, of all things, is a sentiment that cannot be made mandatory. It emerges, if it emerges at all, through a process of engagement — which must necessarily include argument and disputation among people who do not always agree. The efforts at this time of year to ban carols and lighted trees and harmless expressions such as "Merry Christmas" are not merely silly but insidious. They undermine rather than promote discussion between faiths and between people of faith and nonbelievers.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Memorization

Last month, my wife and I moved. Moving is best done regularly or not at all, and after the events of the past four weeks, the idea of spending about fifty years in one house, dying there, and then forcing the inheritors of my estate to go through my decades of accumulated crap has a certain appeal. Take that, you vultures.


At any rate, I consider myself a modest adherent of Robertson Davies's admonishment to "keep everything." Amongst the discoveries in our attic — my prized comic books, located at last! — was a pile of undergraduate papers and tests. I re-read a few of them, and was struck by the fact that Graham, aged twenty, was in some ways a better writer than he is now. He was highly imitative of whatever he was reading at the time, but a careful and economical writer and one with certain spring in his sentences. He might have made a good novelist had he worked at it. He didn't. In fact, re-reading the essays now, I see quite clearly that he was also a remarkably lazy researcher, and much of what he wrote comes across as likeable but insubstantial, like fast food or a hollow Easter-egg. One senses from the remarks of various professors that they were more amused than impressed, and occasionally one saw through the whole stylistic juggling act and called it for what it was. In 1991, Graham received a mark of 40% for a very clever but paper-thin review of Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms. He was very angry at the time, especially since another professor had just given him a 90% on a similarly conceived book review. And here's an important point, students: re-reading the essays now, and reflecting upon the professors' comments, I realize that it was the first professor, and not the second, who was not only right, but who really cared about twenty-year old Graham's academic progress. The second exemplified what the recently departed Theodore Sizer called the "disengagement compact" – the all-too-common understanding between teacher and student that they won't demand much of each other.


Another thing: among my discoveries was a mid-term test I wrote in 4th year. (Some years had passed: young Graham went through the academic grist mill and emerged as the person I will now refer to as "I".) The course was "The Intellectual History of Modern Japan", taught by a great professor, Barry Steben, who was very probably the person most responsible for my decision to pursue history professionally. His was a straightforward pedagogy. He arrived with a sheath of notes and an idea and started talking (with you, not at you); you finished each class feeling winded but with a sense of real accomplishment –the kind of really intellectually demanding classes that would be offered by more professors if teaching evaluations weren't forever being dangled over their heads.


His tests were hard. Here's a typical essay question: "Describe the structure of loyalty under the Tokugawa order, giving the name in Romanized Japanese of each major node in the authority hierarchy. Explain some of the principles by which this order functioned at its different levels, and make some mention of potential contradictions within the society (or contradictions between the system and the actual realities of Japanese society) that contributed to its collapse at the end of the Tokugawa period. In outlining the structure of the system, you should explain why the concept of direct, unmediated loyalty to Heaven was considered subversive."


A curious thing: I scored 11/12 on the multiple choice and 23/24 on the essay question, for a cumulative mark of 94%. The professor felt that my answer to and explanation for one question was good enough for a 2% bonus, and thus my final mark came to 96%. Well done indeed. That was the highest test mark I ever received in university.


Now, the point, and for anyone who teaches history, it's a sobering though perhaps unsurprising one. Were I to write that test tomorrow, I would unquestionably fail it – with a mark of (probably) zero on the essay and, presumably, results according to chance expectations on the multiple choice, for an average of 6%. So, here I am, a professional historian, and I would fail a history test that I aced fifteen years ago. So much for the standard claim that we study history in order to accumulate facts that will aid us in the present, or the hope of those dour and fusty antediluvians at the Dominion Institute that if a kid can pass a history quiz he can be deemed well educated. As I've argued elsewhere, several conditions would have to be met for this to be true, not the least of which is that we'd actually have to remember what we're taught for more than a few months. Few of us can.


To illustrate: a few weeks back I was mildly irritated but also unsurprised when not one of twenty students in my 4th year history seminar could correctly explain Confederation to me, and last week I found that none could tell me anything worthwhile about the French Canadian nationalist Henri Bourassa, and this after they all had completed a Canadian history survey. (Shame, senior students, for not looking it up – something you can do much more easily than Graham could at your age.) But the fault isn't really theirs: the overwhelming majority of us simply don't recall facts that we don't regularly require. Now, I happen to believe that a degree of cultural literacy is important. As one friend and colleague of mine has often observed, if you're studying modern European history and don't know what the French Revolution is, you're in trouble. The problem is this: the methods of education that the Dominion Institute types want —methods that center on rote memorization — are the ones least likely to produce cultural literacy in the long term. And they remain at the core of our educational system. Oh, I tell my students that I want them to think about what I'm saying in lecture, but when mid-term and exam time rolls around what I'm looking for is accurate recall of raw information.


What Steben understood is that the curriculum was taught not just for its own sake but also and perhaps predominantly to cultivate a love of learning and scholarly habits of mind. I was fortunate to have half a dozen or so professors who saw it that way, and who made an authentic effort to do more than just pay lip service to this ideal. So, yes, I'd fail that test if I took it tomorrow. But give me two weeks to prepare for it, and I'll beat the pants off Graham, aged 25, without blinking. I have something that he was just beginning to cultivate: an understanding of disciplinary methodology. This is the second most important thing we can teach our students. (The first is ethics.) Knowing the name of the first Prime Minister and the date of Confederation is, well, trivial, by comparison.